After 25 years in the booth with two of the NFL's most storied and successful media franchises, NBC sportscaster Al Michaels has become the voice of prime-time TV football.
But his voice extends even further throughout American culture and shared memory as a result of his work at the microphone during such landmark events as the U.S. victory in men's hockey at the Winter Olympics in 1980 and his coverage of an earthquake in San Francisco during the 1989 World Series.
Michaels came to NBC's "Sunday Night Football" five years ago after 20 years with ABC's legendary "Monday Night Football." His NBC broadcast this fall has become the first sports franchise in TV history to be the highest-rated show in prime time — topping all sitcoms, dramas and reality TV series.
Last week, he talked to The Baltimore Sun about Sunday's game between the Ravens and Steelers, as well as the success of "Sunday Night Football" and his long career.
Question: From where you sit, how does this showdown Sunday stack up? Is this one of the biggest games of the year?
Answer: This is definitely one of the biggest games of the year. This has become a great rivalry — very intense, very physical. It's pretty much the NFL's answer to a cage match. That's what it's become.
These are two teams that are not fond of each other. There's an intense dislike here between these teams, topped off by the fact that you have two teams coming in at 8-3. The winner of this game is going to be in a lot better shape than the loser, especially if it's Baltimore, because they'll have a one game lead, but they will have won both meetings, so, in effect, they will be two games in front with four to go. And that will put them in position to win the division and maybe get a bye in the playoffs. The loser, meanwhile, is going to have to fight for a wild-card berth. Without projecting too much, the winner of this game is probably looking at a [No.] 2 or 3 seed, if it all plays out the way we think it will. And the loser is looking at a [No.] 5 or a 6 [seed]. So, it's big, it's big in that regard.
Plus, the games have been very intense. That AFC championship game a couple of years ago was as physical a game as I can ever remember seeing. It captivated the country. And these teams just seem to play great, hard-fought, intense, rough-tough games. And unless something happens that I can't possibly foresee, we're going to get another one on Sunday night.
Q: And the fans dislike each other as much as the teams, I think. No matter what I write in my review of the telecast, fans on one side or the other will feel the referees called a terrible game and I totally missed it.
A: That's the one thing I can guarantee — or that the announcers were rooting for one team or the other. But another part of this rivalry that makes it even more intense, maybe 3 or 4 percentage points, is the fact that in Pittsburgh, the Ravens are still thought of as the Cleveland Browns. Even though the Ravens are their own franchise, and the records and colors and all of that stayed in Cleveland, for a lot of Pittsburgh fans who go back a ways, the Ravens are the old Cleveland Browns. And they hated the Cleveland Browns. So, they can hate two Cleveland Browns right now, the real Cleveland Browns and these Cleveland Browns.
Q: As revered as ABC's "Monday Night Football" is in our collective memory, it never reached the ratings pinnacle NBC's "Sunday Night Football" has this year as the highest-rated show in all of prime-time TV? How do you explain the ratings juggernaut "Sunday Night Football" has become.
A: There are a couple of factors here. When I did "Monday Night Football," I loved it. It was great. It was thought of as the premium prime-time game. And "Sunday Night Football," which came into being in the mid-'80s on ESPN, was the second sister.
Then in 2005, there was a movement within the league to make the Sunday night game the premiere game.
ESPN was able to get the Monday night package, and there was a moment in time when the Disney Co. [owners of ABC and ESPN] could have had both, Sunday night and Monday night. And God knows what would have happened to NBC had that happened. But I give Dick Ebersol [head of NBC Sports] a tremendous amount of credit for understanding what the league was trying to do. … And he was able to figure out a way to get the Sunday night games on NBC…